'Fired twice'... but he got to meet the president

Dateline: Tue 19 May 2009

And be part of starting a union.

That's the story of William Selm, a 55-year-old architecture historian and hotel doorman whose ongoing saga has been chronicled in the Indianapolis Star, although certainly, more could be written. Still, biz reporter Jeff Swiatek gets thanks for bringing  us up to date this morning on Selm's one-on-one with President Obama Sunday.

And while meeting the prez is certainly worth noting, the real story here is how tough it is to get unions established at Indianapolis hotels -- but it's happening. Selm is part of that effort through UNITE HERE, a New York-based union organizing group. HERE, says Selm, stands for Hotel Employee Restaurant Employee.

So how does a guy who teaches at IUPUI and boasts intellectual credentials out the wazoo end up opening doors for the swells who stay at the Westin? He got into the business 14 years ago, after other work dried up. And he's done a fine job of it, too: He was Westin's employee of the year in 1998, and he was honored in 2003 with a ROSE for outstanding customer service.

The trouble started in August of 2008, when Selm and 11 other doormen, bellmen and valets were called to a meeting at the Westin and informed that their jobs were being outsourced to a contractor.

 "I was fired twice," says Selm, who was given the "opportunity" at that time to reapply for his job through the new contractor, Towne Park, which provides service workers at hotels all across the nation -- those, anyhow, where unions do not exist.

"It was a new company, and their point of view was different (from what the estin's had been). But I did my job," says Selm.

Then in January, the Westin fired 34 employees at its Shula's Steakhouse restaurant and outsourced those jobs to Culinaire, yet another national company with a long reach into the hospitality industry.

"The shake-up was demoralizing," says Selm. "It was the talk of the whole hotel. I said, 'Well, who's next?...there will be no end to this,'" he recalls. He went so far as to speculate that outsourcing "could go all the way up to the (Westin's) third floor" and that even management could be targeted.

 On the heels of that wholesale restaurant firing in January, Selm happened to be sitting in the break room, watching CNN's coverage of the swearing-in of Obama as our new president. "They ran a clip of Obama. He had signed an executive order making it easier for companies with federal contracts to unionize," says Selm.

Yes, the Westin gets federal dollars -- they've done business with the Veterans Administration, Department of Transportation and various military agencies. "Your tax dollars at work," explains Selm.

Obama's support of unions was a seminal moment, recalls Selm.

Watching a news clip, Selm heard fighting -- and inspiring -- words. "Obama said, 'Unions are not a problem. They are part of the solution,'" he recalls.

Desite that feel-good moment, Selm was called in the next day to the Towne Park boss's office.

 "Somebody tattled," he says. What got him in hot water was his speculation about "who's next?' to lose their jobs.

Selm's boss told him that "Mr. (Dale) McCarty (Westin's manager) did not like it. He asked my boss to remove me.'

Although his boss made it clear that Towne Park management itself had no problem with Selm's observation -- free speech and all that -- they had to acquiesce to their employer, the Westin's manager. So Selm was suspended for three days and then booted over to the Sheraton Downtown. He went from earning $8.50 an hour at the Westin to $3.50 at the Sheraton, where he is a bellman.

A quick Google search shows that attention is being paid; petitions have circulated, trying to get Selm's old job back. Democratic politicians got on board, including U.S. Rep Andre Carson.

That's how Selm ended up at the Westin Sunday night, at a Democratic Party fund-raiser with President Obama  speaking. He was at a table with other hotel workers seeking union protection. Yes, they had free tickets.

After Obama spoke and recognized the efforts to unionize and the workers present, Selm got about two minutes with the president out in the hallway, one-on-one.

It was a good booster.

"I've been to hotels in New York, Montreal, Chicago. I've talked to doorman who worked there for 25, 30 years. They retire from their jobs.''

The difference is that those places are strong union cities, says Selm.

He hopes to see the movement continue to grow in Indianapolis, which it is.

UNITE is actively organizing at three hotels.

''I have a lot invested in this," says Selm. He's not alone.

For more on the UNITE union and Indy, here's a youtube video:


Tell The Truth [Member] said:

This is a superb story. Thanks to you and Swiatek.

The ridiculous information being put forth by the biz community regarding the Union Organizing legislation notwithstanding, this movement needs attention.

Few folks stand by common laborer-principles any more. I was raised in a union household. Every time there was a strike, or a layoff, my dad did picket duty and scrambled for additional outside work to feed and support us. At a young age, we understood the value in collective bargaining.

When Meijer came to town in the 90s, their stated goal, via some inept inside PR lackey, was to bust the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. They did. And in the process, rewrote the rules on grocery shopping in this city.

They placed pickets at their local stores for quite some time. Alas, the UFCW were busted. Shortly thereafter, Preston Safeway (mostly) went away.

I will never cross a picket line, and I still haven't been inside a Meijer.

I'd like to meet Mr. Selm. Norma Rae lives. Right on.

2009-05-20 05:12:00

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

**UFCW was, not were

By the by, I've met Dale McCarty. Selm is better off away from that kind of negative crap.

2009-05-20 05:16:14

John Howard [unverified] said:

Unions have become an expensive variation of the minimum wage law.

I know union 'workers' who do little work and make $65/hr or more for snoozing in their little corner of their plant waiting for a pager to go off.

It's no wonder so many jobs go overseas or over the border.

2009-05-20 09:48:42

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

I her that lament often, John. Please illuminate. What specific kind of job pays $65 an hour for little work? At what employer, or type of employer?

2009-05-20 12:17:25

hendy [Member] said:

There's two sides of every coin. I was a member of three unions, one for working at Preston Safeway as a kid, then the Musician's Union two times.

Then, when I worked at a major consumer electronics place in LA, the IBEW came in and tried to organize. The FUD that they created, and violence that they fomented, was hideous. My opinion of unionization is forever changed because of their boorish and plainly criminal/libelous tactics.

While I want to see people paid fair wages and dislike how Indiana law treats employees, there has to be a middle ground somewhere. Yes, I know there are really nasty employers (like those cited in the article) whose only fealty is to stockholders, and I know of others that are reasonable (altho they're probably in the small minority). You see the screw-offs (CWA, are you listening?) and you also see a lot of genuinely decent people working hard.

Like most things, the problem is universal solutions to uniquely individual problems, and how one size never fits all except the model. And she needed to gain weight anyway.

2009-05-20 14:45:45

John Howard [unverified] said:

Employer? Rolls Royce. That $65 is some union-defined multiple of the base hourly pay for Sunday hours. A day when the job consists of doing nothing or nearly so because the rest of the facility is a ghost town.

It is worse than a lament, it is reality.

2009-05-20 16:29:36

Jason [unverified] said:

I'm with Hendy. It's difficult to really say 'pro-Union' or 'anti-Union' because you're being asked to make such a polarizing stance on the issue. You're either being asked to throw the baby out with the bathwater or drink the bathwater with your supper.

Some unions are worth their weight in gold, others aren't worth half their weight in dog c--p (as John Howard alluded to, though I won't go further because I don't want the mob knocking on my door.)

OSHA, Federal employment laws & standards, etc. have taken a bite out of the union card game, but would they have come into being were it not for the unions?

2009-05-20 16:41:00

kaballah38 [Member] said:

Prisons in Canada (Medium security) are better than Westin and Hyatt in Indianapolis.

2009-05-20 20:23:58

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Thanks, John Howard, and shame on Rolls Royce for putting up with it. But your example points out it is a rarity.

I had forgotten all about CWA, Hendy. A friend works there. She's been there since ATT was Indiana Bell. The company has decimated its customer service ranks, tol the point it's a joke. Ever try to talk to AT&T? here's what you'll usually get:

A guy named "Howard" in the Manilla, who has four answers from a card, to read to you. Whatever your question, his answer comes from that card. My AT&T friend says she wants to retire because of the stress of dealing with constantly-angry customers, but can't afford to until her last child gets out of college in three years.

She and her colleagues have used the CWA to complain, to no avail. And we consumers lost the ability to complain in Indiana two years ago, when telecoms were "deregulated" along with cable companies. The state cannot and will not step in.

AT&T, as well as Comcast, are customer service disasters. Both CWA companies. Which doesn't mean a damned thing if the company outsources the customer service functions to foreign lands.

2009-05-21 06:23:55

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